Text and photos by Peter Vankevich
Ocracoke has another rare avian visitor this winter, a subadult Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator). This the largest native North American waterfowl.
In January, a Purple Gallinule, normally found farther south, was spotted by islanders Heather Johnson and Claire Senseney that you can read about here.
Here is a caveat: Distinguishing a Trumpeter Swan from the Tundra Swan (that winters in great numbers in the Lake Mattamuskeet region of Hyde County and in the water impoundments of the Pea Island Wildlife Refuge) can be tricky. Several good birders I checked with and reviewed the photos I sent, agreed this bird is a Trumpeter.
Another caveat: For good parts of the day, this swan has been in a marsh area at Southpoint over the past two weeks or so. It should not be disturbed by attempting to get too close. It is very active and does fly off.
Although once abundant and geographically widespread, the Trumpeter Swan’s historic breeding range extended from the Bering Sea east through almost all of Canada and south to Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.
But by the early 20th century, their numbers plummeted nearly to extinction as they were hunted for their skin, feathers, meat and eggs. The soft swan skins were commercially used in powder puffs, their down for stuffing pillows, and white feathers for hats and quill pens. Passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 gave protection to Trumpeter Swans and other birds and helped curb illegal killing.
Despite this protection, by the mid-1930s, only about 75 individuals were known to exist in the wild at remote locations near Yellowstone National Park. There was a report that in 1949, the Director of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service considered Trumpeter Swans “the fourth rarest bird now remaining in America.”
But in the early 1950s, a previously unknown population of these swans was discovered around the Copper River in Alaska.
Due to conservation efforts that include protection from shooting, habitat conservation and management, they made a comeback. The Trumpeter Swan Society website notes that, based on a survey in 2010, there were more than 46,000 individuals, a significant increase from the 3,700 swans counted in 1968, which was the first range-wide Trumpeter Swan survey count. The vast proportion of these waterfowl live in Alaska.
Efforts to reintroduce this bird into other areas of its original range, and to introduce it elsewhere, have had some success. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are about 10,000 in the Midwest and approximately 500 in the region of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. The very few individuals that have made it this far east are believed to be from the Midwest.
This is a bird of many superlatives. It is one of the heaviest living birds or animals capable of flight, weighing between 15 to 30 lbs. The wingspan can vary from 6 to 8 feet. It also has a long lifespan, with one living in the wild determined to be 23 years old.
So, how can one distinguish a Trumpeter from a Tundra Swan? Although, the Trumpeter is much larger, unless the two species are next to each other, size alone can be difficult.
David Sibley, author of several guide books, notes on his website the Trumpeter Swan calls, from which it gets its name, are “mainly a gentle honk, like a single short toot on a trumpet, repeated; often in series of two to three notes: “do-do-doo.” Tundra Swans, formerly called Whistling Swans, have higher-pitched calls.
The swan presently on Ocracoke is very vocal, often making a single honk call.
He also notes that the Trumpeter’s eye is broadly connected to the black bill, whereas the Tundra’s eye appears nearly separate from the bill. Tundra Swans have a shorter more concave bill and has some yellow at the base.
This swan still shows second year plumage, full adults are pure white.
How rare is this bird in North Carolina? There are a few records of sightings in North Carolina, including.at Lake Mattamuskeet a couple of years ago, but Trumpeter Swans are not on the Birds of the Outer Banks checklist .